The bells on the BYU Provo campus that chime out the Pioneer anthem “Come, Come Ye Saints” had an increased resonance and meaning for those attending the “Religious Freedom Annual Review” on June 20 and 21.
The familiar tune, written by Church pioneer William Clayton as he crossed the plains in the late 1800s, proudly declares, “Where none shall come to hurt or make afraid; There the Saints will be blessed. We'll make the air with music ring, Shout praises to our God and King; Above the rest these words we'll tell — All is well! All is well!”
These lyrics were referenced by William Clayton’s descendant, Elder L. Whitney Clayton, during his keynote address at the conference on June 20. As Elder Clayton of the Presidency of the Seventy quoted the hymn, it felt like the perfect embodiment of what it means to protect religious freedoms.
During his keynote speech titled “In the marrow of their bones: A Latter-day Saint experience of religion as identity,” Elder Clayton shared stories of his own pioneer ancestors and expressed the importance of their faith as a core part of their identity.
“I cannot separate who I am from the faith that inspired those pioneer ancestors to sacrifice everything for the gospel of Jesus Christ,” Elder Clayton said. “That faith continues to inspire and define my life and that of my family.”
Elder Clayton said personal belief can shape every aspect of an individual's life.
“Once experienced and accepted, faith in God is life altering. The fateful, life-changing choice to believe deeply influences one’s personal, familial and cultural identity. It defines who and what we are; how we understand our purpose for being; how we relate to others; and how we deal with pain, suffering and death.”
Faith, as Elder Clayton explained, is much more than a personal choice or preference; it is the foundation of character.
The failure of secular leaders and entities to understand faith as part of a person’s identity “naturally results in discounting the importance of religious freedom that allows people of faith to live out their core identity in dignity and peace,” Elder Clayton explained.
“For many believers, religion is not simply something one can put on or remove like a favorite T-shirt,” Elder Clayton said. “Dispelling this myth is key to greater understanding of religious and nonreligious people.”
Brett G. Scharffs, director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at BYU, also addressed the value of choice in regards to religious freedom.
“Our hope is that we can explore ways that religious freedom for all, including the freedom to be non-religious, can and should contribute to the common good. A hope that at times seems forlorn in a political and social climate that seems to have, to some extent, given up on the idea that there even is a common good.”
Noting that finding common ground between secular and religious sectors is higher when people are willing to “come together and discuss issues with respect and open minds,” Schaffer said the annual conference, which brings people together from various backgrounds and beliefs, is a key example for how to begin such dialogue.
“This conference is one of the most important events of the year, every year, for religious freedom across the country," Elder Clayton said in an interview with Church News. "And the conference is becoming a great light to the rest of the country for understanding religious freedom and how it plays an important part in the lives of many Americans.”
Aligning with the theme of this year’s conference, “Religious Freedom and the Common Good,” a major topic of discussion throughout the conference sessions was: How does religious freedom and faith contribute to the common good of the world?
Fiona Givens — author and Church member — spoke to the Church News of how The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints contributes to the common good.
“I feel, as LDS, we are under covenant to help globally in all the efforts to bring about Zion,” she said. “We have a covenantal responsibility to engage completely in all the efforts to bring peace, to bring religious freedom, to bring safe spaces where people can practice their religions without being heckled; without being misperceived as dangers to society.”
Her words echoed points on growing secular discrimination against religious beliefs as detailed by Elder Clayton in his keynote address.
“Too often secular elites and government officials … see faith and faith communities, with their competing demands on loyalty and their adherence to tradition, as an intractable obstacle that interferes with achieving their own ideological views of a just and modern society,” Elder Clayton said. “I fear that too often, they even see religion itself, not only particular beliefs to which they object, but faith in God itself as outright dangerous — as an uneducated and superstitious way of thinking that ought to be cast aside as reasonably possible.”
Such a viewpoint is profoundly naive, Elder Clayton explained. In an interview with the Church News following his address, Elder Clayton stated that perhaps an even greater threat to religious freedom comes in a more surreptitious form.
“In my view, the biggest threat to religious freedom is often almost invisible,” he said. “We don’t see frequent open attacks, instead we see shifting sands of cultural acceptance for things that are antithetical to religion. And some of those changes, some of the shifting sands, tend to make the practice of religion in a public way more difficult for people of faith.”
But these shifting sands, as Elder Clayton explained them, may come more from misunderstandings of religious beliefs and their importance rather than from deliberate prejudice.
In a session about communicating the importance of religious freedoms with the millennial generation, Emily Hardman, president of Amicus Communications, presented statistics from a recent survey.
The survey found that, while 95 percent of millennials think religious freedom is important, 58 percent think religion shouldn’t play a role in society. Her remarks pointed to the growing trend among younger generations to believe that religion should take place in the private sectors, rather than lived in communities.
But as Kristen Looney, director of the Religious Freedom Center, Freedom Forum Institute, explained during her remarks in one of the closing sessions of the conference, it is necessary to engage in open and honest dialogue in order to overcome misconceptions about what religious and secular beliefs entail and find a balance for how they can be practiced and manifested without prejudice.
“It’s up to us in how we are willing to reach out and be vulnerable, to cross borders, to be understanding, and to find that common ground,” Looney said.
And for religious groups that feel they are experiencing oppression, that open dialogue and respect from others is one of the most important things for helping to protect their religious freedoms.
Speaking specifically of the oppression experience by Muslims in America, Sahar Aziz said: “I think what’s important is for people of other faith to ally themselves and come to the aid of Muslims, particularly in times of crises, in solidarity."
She added that religions have a responsibility to stand by one another because they all have a stake in the idea of religious freedom.
"Once it becomes normal to openly defame and attack a religious minority or religious community, then eventually it starts to spread. And an attack on a religious freedom of one group is an attack on all groups," Aziz said.
In the concluding remarks of his address, Elder Clayton said, “If you believe that taking constitutional and human rights seriously requires social respect and legal safeguards so people can live out their core identities openly — as equal participants in our communities and nation — then I hope that same conviction extends to religious people and their core beliefs. Even when those beliefs may be deeply unpopular.”
Members of the Church, Elder Clayton noted, are no strangers to their beliefs being unpopular. The Church and its members have a history that allows them to understand the struggle of having their beliefs misunderstood and threatened. But that history can help Church members take the lead in facing religious adversity and defending their rights for religious freedoms.
“Our faith lifts us beyond the trials and tribulations of this life to a loftier vision of salvation and peace and gives us hope to press forward and joy in the journey,” he said, echoing the words of the Pioneer anthem written by his ancestor.
“The same faith that sustained 19th-century pioneers through terrible trials as they sought to build their Zion continues to sustain and defend identities and lives of faithful Church members to this day,” Elder Clayton said. “That same faith is still in the marrow of our bones. It is still who we are.”